Julia Kirchner

A Review of Sky Burial

Sky Burial is story told by the Chinese author Xinran about a Chinese woman from Suzhou who spent thirty years in Tibet during the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the reform years. Her story offers the perspective of a traditional Chinese woman who falls in love with and embraces Tibetan customs and lifestyle. At the same time, her story also talks about the remoteness of Tibetan grasslands and the contrast between historic developments in China and the preservation of traditions and customs in Tibet. Even though Wen Shu’s story focuses on the search for her beloved husband, her account is more than just a simple love story. It exposes the contradictions and gaps of knowledge between Chinese and Tibetans and shows the limited influence of history on traditional Tibetan lifestyles.

The story of the book focuses on the Chinese woman Shu Wen who lost her husband during the invasion of Tibet in the late 50s. He accompanied the Chinese army as a doctor. Shu Wen received a notice informing her about the death of her husband in East Tibet during an incident. Out of frustration and love for him, Shu Wen was not satisfied due to the lack of information give to her and continued to hope that her husband is still alive. She decided to go with the People’s Liberation Army into Tibet as well and to search for her husband. However, during this journey, Shu Wen was separated from her army unit, became friends with a Tibetan noble daughter and traveled with her through Tibet. When both of them collapsed due to the harsh travel conditions, they got taken in by a Tibetan nomad family with whom they live for several years. These years exposed Shu Wen fully to the Tibetan lifestyle and traditions of this family, so that she became a part of them. However, Shu Wen also experienced a lot of hardship during these years; separated from her friend for years and alienated by a unfamiliar society, she never gave up the search for her husband. When Shu Wen’s quest finally came to an end and she returned to her hometown Suzhou, she had completely assimilated Tibetan customs and had to realize the extent to which her former life had been altered.

Even though Sky Burial is concerned with the quest of a woman for her lost husband, the story exposes many interesting parts about both Chinese and Tibetan culture, and more importantly about the situation in Tibet during the invasion of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). As part of an army unit moving into East Tibet, Shu Wen had the ability to observe the conditions in Tibet at that time which apparently differed vastly from the information she had received prior to her journey. “Although the area...had allegedly been “liberated”, there was hardly a local to be seen, no military units, and no signals accessible to the radio operators. Anxiety began to eat away at the soldiers on board the trucks as the emptiness of the mountains, the thinness of the air, and the violent changes in the weather enfolded them in a world of fear. (31)”.

Shu Wen began to realize that the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet might not be as peaceful as it was presented to her and the PLA is far from being in control of the situation. Her army unit faced harsh resistance and was attacked by Tibetan guerillas who kill two of their soldiers unnoticed every night. As Shu Wen recounted from her husband’s diary, he encountered similar problems. Apparently, he had been told in the trainings that negotiations between Chinese and Tibetan religious leaders had been entirely successful and that “warmhearted, honest Tibetan compatriots” welcomed the PLA with open arms. According to Kejun, this propaganda gave him very little preparation for the aggression he was going to encounter later on (167). Even from her new friend Zhouma, Shu Wen heard rumors that there was fierce fighting between Tibetans and Chinese in other regions. Temples are destroyed, landowners slaughtered and serfs fled (51). When Shu Wen herself witnessed a large Chinese cavalry unit kill a large group of Tibetans who had not hidden themselves quickly enough (63), she realized that Beijing’s policies of liberating this regions were far from being effective.

However, Shu Wen’s story also attempts to provide some explanations for this. Apparently, the lack of knowledge of Tibetan customs and culture presented a great challenge that created many conflicts. According to Shu Wen, many soldiers in the PLA were young and had very little knowledge of Tibet. They were “young, uneducated peasants, utterly incapable of understanding such a diverse and remote people (30)” They only new of the cruelty of the people and the brutal physical punishment Tibetans inflicted upon their enemies (29/30). In her husband’s army unit similar conditions were present. Shu Wen’s husband Kejun and his commander were the only educated soldiers. His unit was composed of “ young, illiterate peasants whose heads were full of Communist slogans such as Liberate the whole of China. They believed that any resistance to them was counterrevolutionary (168). Therefore, even though the commander holds that the PLA “[was] a revolutionary army, not a force of oppression” that strived for the cooperation and understanding of the Tibetan people (41/42), Shu Wen only felt a constant fear of death among the soldiers. As a result, the soldiers were ready to kill anyone who would come near their unit, without exceptions. These observations and experience provide a very sensible explanation for the difference between policies and actual events with regards to the invasion of Tibet.

Even Shun Wen and her husband could not escape those conflicts resulting in a misunderstanding of Tibetan culture. During her time with the nomad family, it took Shu Wen a long time to adjust to the different lifestyle. She was shocked when she learned about the Tibetan customs of two brothers sharing the same wife (84). However, her husband got into even more trouble when he shot a holy bird by accident during a sky burial. In an attempt to save a man who had been buried alive, he violated Tibetan customs and offended the Tibetan community present. Kejun believed that he could only appease the Tibetans and prevent a massacre by sacrificing something of equivalent value. In the end, only Kejun’s understanding of Tibetan customs prevented a major conflict from arising. This incident and Shu Wen’s experiences both show how it is a difficult learning process to understand a foreign culture. Even though Shu Wen felt like an outsider in Tibet in the beginning, not being able to understand the language, food, religious practices, she adapted to those conditions over time. In the end, she even mastered the difficult task of churning butter.
However, even though Shu Wen adapted to the living conditions of Tibetan nomads after several years and she finally started to participate in the religious rituals, murmuring the Buddhist mantra, she still had not completely assimilated to this culture. Even though the people in China all saw her as a Tibetan, she still did not master the language completely or understand all the complex practices during festivals or religious ceremonies. At the same time, she had to realize that she was also no longer part of the new China and her former place in the traditional Chinese society had vanished. Shu Wen then remains an intermediary between these two cultures, not really belonging to any of them. Her story shows the profound effects of one’s cultural upbringing and the difficulties of ever fully understanding an alien culture.

At the same time, Shu Wen’s experiences during the Mao years also very much reflect the impact the Chinese Communist Party possibly had on the nomad population in this particular region of Tibet. Due to the remoteness of the Tibetan areas and the remote lifestyle of the nomads, the flow of information at that time was very limited. Therefore, Shu Wen and the nomad family generally settled in very remote areas, especially after her friend Zhouma got kidnapped (106). The family only has contact with other people outside the family at festivals a few times a year. Due to the lack of news from the outside world, Shu Wen was completely uninformed about the political situation of Tibet when she left the nomad family. She did not even know that the conflict between Tibetans and Chinese had long been over or what the Cultural Revolution was. It seems as if the political situation had no effect on this nomad family and information about political events did not even reach them. This brings up the question whether this lack of information affected the entire region or whether Shu Wen’s family was the only one which remained uninformed. However, it seems possible that with such as remote lifestyle of the nomads, most of those families remained quite unaffected by the political developments at that times.

On the other hand, other parts of Tibet showed greater Chinese influences. When Shu Wen arrived in Lhasa with her friends, modernization had already arrived. Her friend Tananmen was amazed to see the whole of Lhasa illuminated at night since he had never seen electricity before. Another major development was the increase in trade and the presence of Chinese products in Tibet. All of a sudden, lamas were engaging in trade and truck shops were opening all over Tibet. Those merchants would be traveling around the Eastern part of Tibet bringing new goods to nomad families such as bicycles and tractors. Shu Wen’s nomad family had never heard of anything like that. These developments show the increasing influence China had on Tibet after they fully occupied Tibet. It also shows the conditions in Tibet after the fighting ended and the Cultural Revolution was over.

Overall, therefore, Shu Wen’s story provides some detailed information about Tibetan customs, the lifestyle of nomad families and even the conditions during and after the invasion of Tibet. However, her account has to be viewed with caution. Even though Shu Wen’s experiences are certainly valuable and interesting, they cannot represent the conditions of the whole of Tibet. Instead, they are rather particular. Shu Wen repeats many times how remote the living conditions of her family were. Therefore, her story tells the reader a lot about this particular family and the circumstances they lived in, but that might not even mean that other nomad families in the same region experienced the same lack of knowledge or political indoctrination. This story shows that such removal from political events was possible at that time in Tibet and that not everyone was heavily affected by the Cultural Revolution. With regards to religious and cultural practices, those might also vary from family to family, even among nomads. Therefore, it is important to realize that the at times remote and peaceful scenario presented in the story might reflect a popular view of Tibet as the Shangri-La but it does not necessarily represent the living conditions of most Tibetans.

However, besides this small point of critique, this book is certainly valuable for a large audience. For readers who are completely unfamiliar with Tibet and its culture, this book presents a great introduction for understanding some of the general customs and practices. Even for people who already possess some or even a great amount of knowledge about Tibet, this book will be interesting because it presents a lot of detail of a particular nomad family and particular points in history from the perspective of an outsider. Especially for Tibetans, this book will be interesting because it focuses on the perspective of a Chinese woman viewing Tibetan history and culture from an Chinese perspective. Therefore, this books exposes various aspects of Tibetan culture, lifestyle and history in a interesting and capturing love story.